Now that the ceasefire is in place in Lebanon, the battle over reconstruction has begun and once again Hizbollah is emerging as the victor. Drawing on financial support from Iran, its grassroots social network and its reputation for honesty and effectiveness, the militant organisation is using the rebuilding effort to lock in its new popularity and status. Its post-conflict success raises yet another dilemma for Europeans and Americans, who want to help the Lebanese recover from the fighting but have no desire to work with radical Islamists or solidify their standing.
How has a terrorist group managed to pull off such a feat, performing functions that the Lebanese government cannot and establishing a de facto monopoly on local relief operations? By exploiting the opportunities afforded by civil society, supposedly one of the pillars of a healthy polity.
Private voluntary associations—known in the US as civil society and sometimes in Britain as the “third force”—are widely touted on both sides of the Atlantic as not only an efficient way of delivering services but a harbinger and foundation of democracy. What advocates of these associations often fail to appreciate, however, is that the nature of their impact depends on the political context. Where states are legitimate and effective, civil society activity can complement and reinforce them. But where states are illegitimate and ineffective—as in much of the Arab world toda—such activity can undermine them further while serving as a base from which radicals can launch challenges to the status quo.
The pattern is simple and fairly common. During recent decades many Arab governments have proved unable or unwilling to modernise their countries’ economies, provide jobs and services to their citizens or satisfy mass political and social aspirations. In response, Islamist movements have moved in to fill the void. They have developed their own civil society organisations and infiltrated and gained control over existing non-sectarian ones. Islamist-led associations have come to provide social goods normally associated with the state, opportunities for political and social activism and, perhaps most important, a sense of purpose and belonging.
In addition, civil society activity has provided the Islamists themselves with practical benefits, enabling them to learn about citizens’ needs and demands and craft their programmes and appeals accordingly. It has helped them build more powerful, flexible and responsive movements bound together by a sense of community and collective identity. Meanwhile, the fact that civil society activity is private and generally local has made it difficult for central governments to monitor and suppress.
Lebanon presents a particularly disturbing variation on these themes. As the state collapsed and the country descended into civil war in the 1970s, Hizbollah stepped forward to pick up the slack, providing desperately needed services to hundreds of thousands of people—especially the Shia, the country’s largest and poorest group. Hizbollah-affiliated associations supplied medical care, hospitals, housing, clean water and schools. Hizbollah also sponsored a wide range of recreational and communal groups that helped it attract supporters, spread its ideology and gradually reshape society from within, winning “hearts and minds” and building support from the grassroots up. The result has been the hijacking of even seemingly beneficent social and charitable activities for the purposes and glory of a deeply illiberal force and, by hiving off citizens from the state, the weakening of national political institutions and loyalties.
What is the moral of the story? That where states are not doing their jobs properly, civil society activity can do more harm than good. It can become an alternative to traditional politics, increasingly absorbing citizens’ energies and satisfying their basic needs while undermining political stability (by heightening dissatisfaction and societal cleavages) and providing rich soil for oppositional and revolutionary movements to grow.
Many of the benefits of civil society stressed by its advocates—providing individuals with political and social skills, creating bonds among citizens, encouraging social mobilisation—turn out to be morally neutral in themselves and can as easily benefit illiberal and anti-democratic movements as liberal and democratic ones.
The passion, energy and efficiency that Hizbollah activists are bringing to the rebuilding of southern Lebanon and to caring for its population are impressive. Unfortunately, their efforts constitute not a boon for the country but rather a serious challenge, and drive Lebanese citizens’ attention and loyalties even further away from the national state and healthy democratic politics.
The ultimate problem in Lebanon, as elsewhere in Middle East, is political: a floundering state created the opening for movements such as Hizbollah to seize, and only a thriving one can stop those challengers in their tracks.
Sheri Berman is associate professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University and author of The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century. Gideon Rose is managing editor of Foreign Affairsmagazine.
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